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Interactions between termites and large ungulates in the Serengeti


Termites are important components of most soil invertebrate communities in the tropics and are considered ecosystem engineers that alter the flow of energy and nutrients through terrestrial ecosystems. Because of their wide occurrence, extensive research has focused on termite social structure, geographical distribution, and behavior. However, considerably less research has been conducted on how these insects affect soil or plant properties when they construct their mounds within the communities they inhabit. Generally, the results of previous studies have shown that termite mounds are an important source of spatial heterogeneity within ecosystems and may alter nutrient, vegetation, and, consequently, herbivore foraging patterns, Such effects may be extremely important in grazing ecosystems.

In Serengeti National Park (SNP), termites and termites mounds are ubiquitous in many of the most important grassland habitats of migratory and resident herbivores. However, termites have gone largely unstudied in SNP, perhaps because of the significant research emphasis on ungulates and carnivores. Except for the mention of termite structures by those researchers studying plant diversity, information on the distribution, abundance, and effect of termites on ecological processes are all but absent from the Serengeti literature. If termites in SNP increase the spatial heterogeneity of soil nutrients and forage quality around their mounds, as has been observed in other African savannas, they could be of great importance for explaining the density and foraging behavior of SNP’s large ungulate populations. This is especially true for resident ungulates, which may face nutritional constraints not experienced by herbivores that overcome nutritional constraints through migration.

Collaboration: Prof. Dr. T. Michael Anderson, Wake Forest University